When you step into the Plunkett Auto Salon, you’re struck by the sight of a big red ’34 Cadillac convertible, in profile.
It’s a massive thing, over 20 feet long, with plump whitewall tires and chrome bits all over. You can't help but stare.
If you’re like me, though, your eyes will eventually land, too, on the banner hanging from the mezzanine directly above the car, a print of a famous 1915 Cadillac ad called, “The Penalty of Leadership.”
The ad is about how innovators are held to a higher standard than the rest, how, “he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity.”
He that has the coolest toys must live in that light, too; Steve Plunkett, for example.
The London, Ontario-based automobile enthusiast regularly shows up on classic car TV shows or in magazines; attends numerous concours events across the U.S.; and every summer throws the country’s largest outdoor car show in his 103-acre backyard.
At the centre of all this publicity is his Cadillac collection, made up of cars like that one-off ’34 V-16 sitting underneath “The Penalty.”
“There’s no car company on the planet that’s introduced more firsts and innovations than General Motors, and most of those innovations have come through Cadillac,” says Plunkett, 56. “That’s what fascinates me. They’ve a really rich history in car technology.”
Plunkett has a dozen pre-war Cadillacs—mostly V-12 and V-16 cars from the 1930s, though he has a 1907 Model K runabout, too – he keeps in the “Auto Salon” he’s furnished in period appointments.
His other garage, walls plastered with posters and neon signs, is crammed with another 31 Cadillacs from the ’50s through ’90s, plus an ’01 Coupe de Ville and a Prevost motorhome.
He keeps another 15 cars (not Cadillacs, mainly old Buicks and Oldsmobiles) in a third garage. In total he has more than 60 cars and counting; and he’ll rarely ever sell one.
“When I run out of room, I just build another building,” he chuckles.
Cars with stories
Steve Plunkett – son of Earl Plunkett, who helped develop the birth control pill – has always been into cars. At 17, he had two; at 27 he got his first Caddy, a ’76 Coupe de Ville. He only started seriously collecting in the last 15 years, though.
He began with ’50s Cadillacs, and, as a matter of fact, never planned to get into any of this pre-war stuff. But he slowly grew inspired by all of the innovations the luxury marque had introduced in the 1930s.
“There’s almost nothing new in cars today,” Plunkett tells me as we tour the Salon. “You think directional driving lights are a new thing?” He points to the lamps on the front of a big, black phaeton. “This ’31’s got ’em, mounted to this linkage, see.”
As we continue browsing, that phrase turns into a sort of refrain. “You think anti-theft ignition/power brakes/energy-absorbing bumpers are a new thing?”
Every car has a plaque in front of it with its year and model number, and the number built.
“When you identify a car from this era, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, I have a ’30 Cadillac,’ because there were so many coachbuilders – Brunn, Dietrich, LeBaron, Murphy—that made so many different bodies for them,” Plunkett explains. “You say, ‘It’s a 1930 Cadillac, then model number, style number and coachbuilder,’ to really identify it properly.”
“That’s why the production numbers are so low, there were so many one-off body styles. Plus you’re dealing with the Depression years, and a very high-dollar item.”
A lot of those plaques also tell you a little about the car’s previous owner, since more often than not they were some sort of celebrity. Plunkett’s collection includes cars owned by Bob Hope, Johnny Cash and Ralph Pulitzer of the Pulitzer Prize family.
“I love a car with a story,” he says.
The cars without famous owners have stories, too; several are specially-built limited editions, like his factory-custom 1969 Cadillac wagon, one of five made to chauffeur GM execs around the 1969 Indy 500.
Or like his newly acquired ’49 Coupe de Ville, one of four prototype Cadillacs in private hands. The car had been sitting in a garage for about 50 years before a fellow classic car enthusiast tipped him off about its sale. “Cars like that are referred, you never see them advertised,” Plunkett says. “Someone tells someone else about it.”
Plunkett's other garage is about 48 metres (160 feet) long by 17 metres (55 feet) wide, and crammed with about 31 cars, all lined up noses pointing at you.
Three a day
Plunkett’s retired now, after working as a picture framing salesman most of his life. He spends most of his time planning the 3,000-car cruise-in he hosts on his property every summer – if you’re anywhere near London, you really have to check out the Fleetwood Country Cruize-In – and working with various local charities.
When he has the time, he’ll wrench on the Cadillacs, performing tune-ups, oil changes or replacing worn out parts with new-old stock from his on-site parts department. He leaves major repairs to his full-time mechanic, Al.
Plunkett likes to keep all of his cars in running order. He has to, since he drives them every day.
“I try to drive three a day. I’m on my second for today,” he tells me during the interview, around two o’clock. “I drive them right up until the roads get salty.” He typically takes them out on a 29-kilometre route he calls, “the Circuit” and brings them up to speed, around 70 km/h.
Some cars get driven a little less often – like the thumping one-cylinder 1907 Model K – but only one car is exempt, the ’25 Cadillac Coach he keeps up on the mezzanine. It’s his only unrestored survivor car, a barn find he calls the “Chicken Coupe de Ville,” but even it gets turned over once in a while (he’s routed a few vents through the walls to channel the exhaust fumes outside).
Even the million-dollar one-off ’34 parked under, “The Penalty” sees pavement pretty often. “That car is nine feet, two inches from the steering wheel horn button to the end of the front bumper,” Plunkett explains how it drives. “It’s like a lowered Kenworth truck. It’s huge.”
He insists on wheeling the hulking thing out onto the road anyway. “Just sitting is the worst thing for a car, new or old.”
That’s why Plunkett’s got to drive these cars. That’s why he does ’em three a day. It’s just got to be done. Call it the penalty of collectorship.